By Tiffany Waddell Tate (’07, MA ‘11), Associate Director for National Engagement in the Alumni Engagement Office at Wake Forest University
Tiffany Waddell Tate is also a career coach & professional development consultant, passionate about helping others develop themselves while adding value to organizations and the world. Stay connected on Twitter @tiffanyiwaddell or at www.tiffanywaddell.com to continue the conversation.
For many early career professionals, believing the myth that leadership is something you wait for until the right position
comes along can delay learning, growth, and opportunity. The idea that you must always “pay your dues,” before anyone can take you seriously or have your ideas heard (while true, in some deeply hierarchical spaces or contexts) negates the fact that leadership is a mindset – a muscle – to develop and activate at every stage of your career. Leadership responsibilities do not require a certain position, but rather all positions requiring leadership abilities and mindset. Even when you assume the top ranks of a team or organization, shifting your thinking beyond individual work tasks to how what you do impacts the overall culture of a team and organization is key to exercising the leadership muscle.
If you are a new or emerging professional you may be wondering, “what are some ways I can up my game around leadership acumen development, and lead from where I sit?” Below are a few key considerations as you move ahead in your work.
Exercise Unwavering Integrity
Sometimes, leadership requires a bit of bravery in the face of tough stuff. Whether that’s holding people accountable for their words and actions with difficult and direct dialogue, or owning up to mistakes you have made in your work, doubling down on integrity is never a mistake. Transparency and authenticity are deeply powerful tools to exhibit one’s character, and often serve as guides when difficult decisions present themselves. You may not always have a blueprint for what to do next, but tapping into your moral compass and considering the implications of your next steps on the work and people around you is always a good thing.
Identify Strategic Solutions, Not Just Pesky Problems
Identifying ways to solve for gaps in processes or systems related to the work at hand that not only patch the problems in front of you, but impact long terms gains of a team or organization are examples of thinking strategically and generating solutions – which is an asset to your manager or team. Complaining about what’s going wrong or not working without presenting potential solutions – that is a liability. No matter your position or title, you have the opportunity to survey the space around you and observe what’s working and what’s not. Often, the problems or opportunities you notice are complex and you’ll start to notice where there are places to increase efficiency, elevate client experience, or break down silos that prevent cross-functional teams from doing their best work. Whatever the context of your profession, there are always opportunity gaps to be had. A leadership mindset says “what can make this place, project, or team better?” rather than “what can make my life more convenient?”
Mind Your Manners
How you treat others matters, no matter your position or status. I was always raised to treat the janitorial staff the same as I would treat the CEO – as all humans are worthy of respect and kindness, simply because they are human (and not because of their title). This orientation to the world has (I think) been helpful in building relationship with people, learning about their life and what motivates them, and have what would otherwise be difficult conversations because I make it a point to be consistent, firm, and kind. It’s possible to disagree with someone’s idea vehemently, but still offer and return positive regard and respect for that person. Simply put, minding your manners allows you to accomplish one-on-one meetings or auditorium-sized chats with the same energy, by having respect for yourself and everyone around you, too.
Cultivate Strategic Partnerships
What’s the saying about no one being an island on their own? Well, at work – even if you are not in a people facing role, you’re most likely not on an island alone. Activating strategic partnerships and alliances with the people you work with is often key to generating new ideas, understanding the way others operate, and what resources or strategies you haven’t uncovered yet that someone else may have insight on. Not only does cultivating partnerships on your team (and outside) allow you to work collaboratively and more efficiently – it also allows you to identify allies and supporters for your work and long-term growth potential. Looking up from your computer from time to time to have a conversation, ask good questions, or offer a helping hand to someone in need on a project or stumped with an obstacle can go a long way toward identifying opportunities for strategic partnerships at work.
Do What You Do Well – Then Ask for More
Leadership mindset is not just about what you do. It’s also about how others see you, and your capacity to take on more work, stretch projects, or stretch roles / promotions. Your ability to consistently show up, think critically, and work well with others are all factors in laying a foundation of being perceived as a leader at work. Someone that people can trust to follow-through on tasks, and solicit feedback (and apply it!) are all the markers of someone who can – and should – grow and apply their talent in new and exciting ways within an organization. Along this vein, doing the job that you were hired to do well is your first priority. If that’s in the bag, finding ways to raise your hand and either ask for more meaningful work, or time with senior leadership, or opportunities to work across teams will allow you to continue to sharpen and hone your professional acumen and experience – it will also allow you to be seen for what you are: a leader. Doing what you do well is critical to work for success first – taking on new opportunities and balancing both – is an important next step to ratchet up your leadership ability and reputation.
I challenge you to re-frame your ability to assume and activate leadership traits in your unique personal and professional space. Consider today how you might lean into the (possibly uncomfortable bits) of leadership, right where you are. What are you doing to stretch your leadership muscle, and how do you plan on activating new strategies to lead from where you sit in future?